The famed millionaire criminologist Richard Wentworth (Warren Hull) has set out to track down the mysterious Gargoyle, the leader of a foreign sabotage ring that seeks to destroy America’s defense industries. To this end, Wentworth works with the police as a special consultant, and also infiltrates the Gargoyle’s gang in the guise of underworld character Blinky McQuade–while, as the masked avenger the Spider, he battles both saboteurs and misunderstanding police in his pursuit of the Gargoyle (who, Wentworth soon learns, must be one of six patriotic industrial leaders who are supposedly opposing the villain).
The Spider Returns, the sequel to The Spider’s Web, was doomed from its inception to be less impressive and less exciting than that excellent serial. Columbia had produced Web “in-house” on a comparatively high budget, while Returns was turned out by independent producer Larry Darmour on a finite sum allotted beforehand by Columbia. Additionally, the negative censor reaction to Web’s violent gun battles and implicit endorsement of vigilantism guaranteed that the returned Spider would be a less lethal and altogether tamer character than he was in his original adventure. Thus, Wentworth in Spider Returns collaborates much more closely with the authorities than he did in Web–both in his own person and as Blinky McQuade–and is only hunted by the police in his Spider guise because Police Commissioner Kirk (idiotically and implausibly) believe that the Spider and the Gargoyle are the same man, not because the Spider anticipates the law by gunning down heavies (as in Web). The tiresome worrying over the “dangerousness” of Wentworth’s crime-fighting by the hero’s fiancée Nita (a loyal and enthusiastic aide in the first serial), and her continual pestering of Wentworth to hang up his Spider costume, also appear to have been intended to make masked avenging seem less fun than it did in the first serial.
George Plympton is the only writer both Spider serials have in common; the other scripters on Returns are Jesse Duffy (who, like Plympton, is credited with “screenplay), Morgan Cox, Harry Fraser, John Cutting, and Lawrence Taylor (all of whom are credited with “story”). The basic plot concocted by this passel of writers is serviceable enough, if repetitive; though written before Pearl Harbor, it treads the same narrative ground as a typical wartime serial, with the Spider continually blocking the Gargoyle’s attempts to steal or destroy valuable defense-related gadgets (most prominently, an electric airplane motor). “Blinky’s” infiltration of the Gargoyle’s gang directly anticipates one specific wartime serial, The Secret Code; as in Code, this potentially interesting subplot is not handled very skilfully. Blinky most implausibly remains in the good graces of the villains after they know that he faked the killing of Wentworth (which won him admittance to the gang in the first place); he also suffers no repercussions when the stolen bombsight blueprints he hands over to the Gargoyle turn out to be worthless (shades of the rubber formula in Code).
Even with the above-mentioned plot holes and a somewhat etiolated hero, Spider Returns could have been a fairly solid chapterplay (albeit no Spider’s Web) if not for its director, the redoubtable James W. Horne. Horne kept his comic propensities under control when co-directing Web with Ray Taylor, but goes solo here and plays practically every scene for laughs, completely undermining the ostensible seriousness of the serial’s saboteur-smashing plot and turning Returns into a complete self-parody. Some sequences (especially the “wild party” thrown by the Gargoyle’s men in Chapter Six) were almost certainly improvised by the director himself, considering how completely alien they are to the serial milieu; other sequences, obviously non-comic in conception, are made equally ludicrous by other characteristic Horne touches–among them slapstick-style staging of supposed action scenes and non-stop overacting by almost the entire cast.
Above: A party (complete with girls, food, and funny hats) is thrown by the Gargoyle’s henchmen, but is electronically spied-on by the irate villain and his nervous scientific accomplice Harry Harvey.
Spider Returns does feature some respectable one-on-one or two-on-one fight scenes (particularly the periodic combats in Wentworth’s lab and living room), but the bulk of its brawls are sloppy and chaotic, with the Spider (like all other Horne heroes) taking on four or five thugs at a time and either pummeling them into oblivion or getting so pummeled himself. The Chapter Two fight at the Gargoyle’s hideout is particularly silly-looking; though it begins promisingly, with the Spider making a dramatic entrance to rescue a kidnapped industrialist, it ends in comedic collapse, with a groggy Spider being successively slugged by each member of an encircling ring of henchmen and then flopping to the floor. Dave O’Brien, who doubled Warren Hull in the first Spider serial, does similar duty here, with Dale Van Sickel (in one of his earliest serial assignments) and stuntman/actor Chuck Hamilton chief among his opponents in the fight scenes.
Above: The Spider scales a hideout rooftop in dramatic style (left) only to be ignominiously pounded into jelly by the Gargoyle’s henchmen after entering the hideout (right). Both scenes are from Chapter Two.
Horne handles the other action scenes in Spider Returns in less contemptuous fashion than he does the majority of the fistfights. The nighttime car chase towards the end of Chapter One and the aerial dogfight in Chapter Twelve are both quite well-done, as is the shootout in what appears to be a genuine dockyard at the end of Chapter Eight; unfortunately, such scenes are relatively scarce in comparison to the fight sequences. A few of the chapter endings are effective in both concept and resolution–the Chapter Six truck crash, Chapter Eight’s double cliffhanger at the dockyard–while others are ridiculously overdone (particularly the Chapter Thirteen cliffhanger with the double-decker deathtrap), and still others are impressive visually (like the Chapter Two plant explosion) but are resolved in characteristically absurd Horne fashion, with the hero crawling out from under crushing piles of debris none the worse for wear.
Above left: The villains are about to drop a mass of anchor-chain on a ships’ cabin containing the Spider at the end of Chapter Eight. Above right: Some say the hero should end by fire, and some by spikes; the Gargoyle tries to have it both ways, trapping Warren Hull and Mary Ainslee in a decidedly over-elaborate deathtrap.
Warren Hull plays things straight as Wentworth and the Spider, delivering his lines in the same cheerful, self-confident, and suavely authoritative manner he utilized in Spider’s Web. However, he consistently goes over the top as the rascally Blinky McQuade–who was only a minor figure in Web, but here appears more often than the Spider himself does and is on screen just as often (if not more often) than the undisguised Wentworth. Hull’s raspy, croaking “Blinky” voice and his energetic “Blinky” swagger are at first as amusingly offbeat as they were in Web, but suffer from overexposure (to put it mildly) and make him seem gratingly cartoonish as the serial proceeds; Hull (no doubt encouraged by Horne) plays his undercover part in such broad and exaggerated fashion that the villains appear extremely stupid for not immediately recognizing Blinky as an obvious “stage crook”–which was no doubt Horne’s intention.
Mary Ainslee as Nita Van Sloan is handed a poorly-written character (as mentioned above), and makes no effort to take the unpleasant edge off Nita’s constant nagging; instead, she handles her “heroine’s” constant recriminations in irritable and snooty-sounding style. When she’s not badgering Wentworth, she’s uttering ear-piercing shrieks or defying the villains with hammy haughtiness; overall, she comes off as only slightly more appealing than Oliver Hardy’s various screen wives in the many comedy shorts directed by Horne. Dave O’Brien is also thoroughly obnoxious as Wentworth’s aide Jackson, delivering his lines with an incredibly overdone flippancy that makes him come off as insufferably smug and cocky. Kenne Duncan–the only returning cast member, besides Hull, from Spider’s Web— has virtually nothing to do as Wentworth’s manservant Ram Singh, who is stripped here of the deadly knife-throwing skills and the colorful Eastern maxims that made him so memorable in the earlier serial. However, Duncan is the only major player in the serial who maintains his dignity throughout; he plays his part with quiet grimness and never once lapses into excessive theatricality.
Forrest Taylor, on the other hand, rockets right into the theatrical stratosphere and stays there in his unbilled turn as the masked Gargoyle–gesticulating dramatically, laughing maniacally, and ranting furiously at bungling henchmen and interfering heroes alike. His almost perpetually apoplectic performance is quite entertaining–but it’s not threatening in the slightest, being far too hammy to be taken at all seriously. Anthony Warde also chews the scenery as the Gargoyle’s chief henchman Trigger, snarling with bombastic vigor and lapsing into equally bombastic panic when threatened by his boss or by Blinky. He also displays a most un-Warde-like nervousness and reluctance whenever the Gargoyle orders him to kill someone in cold blood, which makes him seem almost sympathetic; like the swashbuckling toughness of the hero’s supposedly helpless and victimized father in Terry and the Pirates, this weirdly diffident action-heavy behavior seems to a deliberate subversion of the serial genre’s conventions on Horne’s part.
Joseph Girard, a regular in Horne’s serials, is blustery and pompously over-dignified as Police Commissioner Kirk, while Stephen Chase, as Wentworth’s butler Jenkins, is alternately befuddled and exaggeratedly enthusiastic. The actors who make up the board of Gargoyle suspects uniformly veer between noisy self-importance and panicked hysteria–all except Corbet Morris, who’s generally phlegmatic as suspect McLeod, but negates his welcome calmness by affecting a painfully fake-sounding Scotch accent. Among his far more mercurial associates are Bryant Washburn, Irving Mitchell, and Charles Miller (who plays Nita’s uncle); the other two suspects (characters named “Gaylord” and “Cartwright”) are not identified in the on-screen cast lists or on the ever-unreliable Internet Movie Database, but are both given extended opportunities to register over-the-top panic when threatened with the Gargoyle’s wrath.
Horne regular Harry Harvey is (no doubt deliberately) miscast as the Gargoyle’s obsequious scientific assistant, his brisk Midwestern voice making his John-Picorri-like verbal refrain of “yes, master” sound weirdly incongruous–particularly when juxtaposed with such colloquial-sounding remarks as “my machine don’t lie;” his incessant sandwich-munching and his fussy, mild-mannered reactions to his boss’s ravings are amusing, but also serve to undercut the Gargoyle’s menace even further. Other prominent henchmen are played by Charles Sullivan, Chuck Hamilton, Dale Van Sickel, and Michael Vallon; all are extremely awkward and jittery in demeanor, and are decidedly non-threatening. Steve Clark appears in a smaller henchman bit, while Jack Gardner is a crooked bartender. Jack Mulhall, boisterous as ever, pops up as a police detective, as do Tom London and Jack Roper; Stanley Blystone and Lee Phelps are uniformed cops, and Lane Chandler is a police fingerprint expert.
The Spider Returns, like most Horne chapterplays, is an utter failure as a serial adventure, but is very funny at times. However, while equally farcical Horne outings such as The Green Archer or The Iron Claw balanced wildly hammy performances by the likes of James Craven and Forrest Taylor with more low-key comic turns by actors such as Charles King, Charles Quigley, and Kit Guard, the comedy in Spider Returns is relentlessly strident, with almost every actor shouting, screaming, blustering, or otherwise overacting in nearly every scene. This air of sustained hysteria, coupled with the serial’s complete waste of the interesting characters established in The Spider’s Web, makes Returns ultimately a frustrating and irritating chapterplay rather than an entertaining one.